- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004


By Pat Barker

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23, 259 pages


Pat Barker began her professional life as a historian, and history has always infused her novels. Her extraordinary “Regeneration Trilogy,” which won numerous literary awards, was inspired by the World War I experiences of her grandfather and the real-life relationship of poet Siegfried Sassoon and British army psychologist William Rivers.

In her new novel, “Double Vision,” war, death and violence continue as ever-present influences: war in Bosnia and Afghanistan, the horror of September 11 in America. Even the pyres of burning animals sacrificed in the battle against hoof-and-mouth disease hint of the forces that stalk man in the age of terror. Violence and the threat of violence hover over every page as Miss Barker continues to explore the effects of murder, accident, disease and thuggery on the lives of her characters.

Stephen Sharkey, a foreign correspondent, and Ben Frobisher, a war photographer, are friends who worked together in Bosnia and both are keenly aware of the tensions in the post-September 11 world. When Ben is killed by a sniper’s bullet in Afghanistan, it is Stephen who finds the body. When Stephen discovers his wife’s affair and concludes that his marriage is over, he returns to London to give up his foreign assignments and write a book. The book is about the complicity of journalist and photographer in war and is illustrated by Ben’s photographs.

“There are plenty of good reasons for being a war correspondent,” Stephen says. “Witnessing. Giving people the raw material to make moral judgments.” But the danger is that “the witness turns into an audience and then you’re not witnessing any more, you’re disseminating.”

Stephen retreats to a country cottage to write his book, near the home of Ben’s widow, Kate, a sculptress working on a huge figure of Christ for the local cathedral. The plot thickens. Kate, gravely injured in an automobile accident, takes in a young man, Peter Wingrave, a former felon, to assist her. Stephen succumbs to the temptations of the vicar’s pretty daughter, 19-year-old Justine, who had been jilted by Peter.

These are the details of intertwined lives, banal in themselves but for the skill of a fine novelist, and the characters who populate “Double Vision” fascinate us. Miss Barker’s characters are, as in her earlier books, wounded victims: Kate has lost her husband and been seriously injured; Stephen watched his friend die and his wife disengage from their marriage. He is troubled by the role of detached correspondent paid to witness war. His young mistress has suffered a disabling illness, her father the vicar suffers his own devils, plagued by the knowledge that he is not the man he should be.

Against a background of violence in their personal lives, in the political arena and even within the natural world, the characters in “Double Vision” search for ways out of a labyrinth of pain, physical and/or mental.

There are denouements of sorts: Kate turns from death to life; Stephen and Justine find love despite the 20-year difference in their ages; the vicar learns that change can be for the good of all. The resolutions are fragile and episodic — perhaps calling for a sequel.

While tentative resolutions reflect the reality of life, Miss Barker frustrates with the failure to resolve some of the mystery she has created and “Double Vision” is weakened by a sudden switch of points of view and reference — Justine is seen through the eyes of Stephen for the first three quarters of the book, and then she suddenly becomes a character acting in her own right. The reader, bereft of introductory background, can only puzzle why Justine reacts and behaves as she does.

Similarly, Peter, who is introduced as a mysterious, menacing figure, is never explained. Although the reader learns why he went to prison, nothing is forthcoming to explain his bizarre behavior throughout the novel or how his crime came about.

The flaws in “Double Vision” disappoint, but Miss Barker writes with such elegance, style and beauty that she is easily forgiven. The pages seem to turn themselves: When sheep that grazed in the churchyard are destroyed to control the hoof-and-mouth disease, for example, Kate “missed the mournful clanking of [their] bells as they moved between the graves.”

Kate observes one morning as she goes from her cozy house to the studio that “[t]he hens were just coming out of the barn, scuffling and pecking at the mud, the cock strutting about with the sun’s rays caught in his jiggling comb, light streaming off his feathers, burning purple, oily green and gold.”

Similarly, the description of a winter storm is stunning: “Above the forest the clouds massed together, a huge black anvil obscured by veils of drifting grey. The trees heaved and thrashed, and then suddenly went quiet, only the topmost branches tweaking, like the tip of a cat’s tail while it’s watching a bird. And then the rain came, great slanting silver rods, disappearing into the black earth.”

“Double Vision” is a fine novel by one of England’s most talented writers. It is easy to read and, as always, Pat Barker leaves the reader enriched by words and ideas.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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